The F Word with Mike Noshay, Verinovum

Verinovum is changing the way healthcare providers serve their patients. By making healthcare data easier to access and share, The Tulsa-based technology startup is mitigating health risks and ensuring better patient care. But despite their well-known success, the story of Verinovum wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Listen as cofounder Mike Noshay talks about the creative ways he kept his business afloat in the early stages— and how the company has evolved because of the choices he made.

[TRANSCRIPT]

Mike: 22, I had not a clue what I was doing. None whatsoever.

Lauren: This week on The F Word.

Mike: I remember there was a day that we had something like $250,000 in overdue accounts receivable, but only $5 in the bank.

Lauren: Mike Noshay, the co-founder and chief customer officer of Verinovum.

Mike: We struggled initially with the concept of being a flyover state. How can you, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, be a technology company that's going to solve healthcare problems?

Lauren: People don't often associate technology startups with Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many assume you have to go to the coast to launch a tech company, but today's guest is building a thriving tech startup right here. Mike Noshay is the co-founder and chief customer officer of Verinovum, a company that designs software to organize healthcare data and make it more user-friendly. At the end of the day, their product helps improve patient care, reduce cost for healthcare providers, and manage potential risks from all fronts. Verinovum is now used by over 3,000 clinical locations across the country, managing the data of about 5% of the US patient population, which is pretty huge when you think about it, but the company is still in the early stages and is figuring out how to navigate customer demands and cash flow and staffing changes. We're going to talk about all those things today. Mike, thanks for coming in.

Mike: Thanks for having me.

Lauren: So you started your company in 2014, but before that, you worked for a nonprofit focused on the legal fabric of data sharing in the healthcare industry. Tell me more about the work you did there and how it prepared you for building your startup.

Mike: Sure. We had a really unique opportunity to get our hands on technology whose goal was to try to streamline the data in healthcare, and during my two years working in that space, saw that it just wasn't doing what we needed. The sales promises provided the pathway to provide clarity or the information accessible. We just never got what we wanted, and I think through those learnings and experiences, we recognized what the gaps were and found a better way to go to do it.

Lauren: What was the problem with sharing healthcare data? I don't think people, unless they're in it, would understand. Is it not as easy as throwing it on a Google Drive or something like that?

Mike: There are a lot of different verticals and reasons why it's more difficult than that. The legal compliance rules, first and foremost, but more than that the technology itself just wasn't capable of doing the data sharing. The best analogy I can provide is in the '80s, if you wanted to get money out of your bank, you had to go to your physical ATM. Today, you can transact from any ATM all over the world or from your phone. Unfortunately, healthcare hasn't hit that same vertical. In the banking space, it's transacting ones and zeros and account number and a bank account balance. In healthcare, there are hundreds of thousands of different variants, from your blood pressure readings to the types of diseases you may have, and so the same sort of transaction from one location to the next just isn't as seamless. That's why this sort of technology is needed.

Lauren: How did you go from seeing there was a problem and a need to actually creating a company?

Mike: I didn't do it alone. I'm graced by having three other amazing co-founders in this business, all industry vets either in the healthcare or in the finance and trust space, and they saw from the clinical application and the technical application pathway ways to improve upon the things that we saw didn't work. When we got started in 2015, it was to try and solve a simple problem, some simple movement of data from one location to the next and support what we call identity resolution, making sure Sally, Sally, and Sally are the same person, and that's different from the fourth Sally. At the end of the day, it'd show even more gaps that we didn't realize were there and just pushed us on our trajectory forward.

Lauren: Can you remember the day that y'all were all sitting around the table and said, "Okay, we're doing it."

Mike: I think there were musings in 2013. We didn't actually get work started until 2014. Just like any good tech story, it was four people in a garage. In fact, I wasn't one of those four at the time. I had a day job and was managing operations and administration because I myself am not a technologist. I think it really hit us when we landed our first full contract and we continued down the path of being a sole-sourced enterprising organization. The big day came in 2016 when we had our second contract land and we realize that we'd found a niche in something we could go do more at scale.

Lauren: I want to talk a little bit about that. You kind of lucked out with your first customer. They were in the bag before you really started. You were commissioned to build a custom software for that first client, which, I'm assuming, that went well?

Mike: Yeah. Still a customer today, just like any ebb and flow happens, we're supporting one another as best we can.

Lauren: Then it was two years before you had your second client. I think a lot of people would be scared to have that big of a gap between client one and client two. I know business development is your main job now. What's your method of business development and finding clients for a B2B high-ticket product?

Mike: Man, that's one of the greatest sets of learnings I've had over this tenure. When we first got started, it was by happenstance, word of mouth. Heck, we built buzz based on our collective networks. It probably wasn't until about 18 months ago when we started putting a really fine focus on the sales front. Even more than that, nine months ago that we started to be truly strategic in the pathway that we go attack markets. You think about the entrepreneurial journey for some of the greats, they say it's the intersection of luck and product, and luck more than anything else sometimes wins out. I don't know that I believe that fully, but in our case, it was definitely part of the journey. We were fortunate to have our first. We happened into our second, despite having a product that we knew could solve problems, and every single day since then's been a more finely-tuned process that we're still working on every day because we've gone from one to two to now eight, and those eight customers represent a broad swath of the market. We're trying to take that eight to 15, 20, 50, and beyond.

Lauren: How are you going to do that? What's your strategy as of now?

Mike: We've got a couple of different verticals. We've got a direct sales force, five enterprise sales people scattered throughout the country in geographic regions, and then from here in the home office, we focus on more strategic relationships, working with blue chip technology companies and other nuanced opportunities that don't fit our typical channels.

Lauren: Is it you're networking with companies who already work with the people who would end up being your client or you're networking directly with your potential client, because your client is healthcare providers, right?

Mike: Our sales team is going direct to insurance companies and provider locations. My specific focus is working on folks that work with those people.

Lauren: Nice, kind of taking a back door into them. That's smart. Software development is messy and a lot of times goes through endless iterations. What were some of the struggles early on as you were building your product?

Mike: Oh, goodness. Meeting customer expectations, supporting development lifecycle management, ensuring that bugs and code that was pushed out were adequately QA’ed and remediated before being pushed into marketplace. That's something that we still continue to strive to be better on every single day. I think back to the iterations of our business, and I love Zappos' philosophy that they're a service company that happens to sell shoes by a technology medium. We historically have been a technology company that have tried to service. Over the last two years, we've been shifting our focus to become more service-oriented, providing the right personnel that can not only ensure a quality product goes out the door but service it after the fact. What I found, no matter the price of the product you purchase, if you're forthright with your customer base, if you're forthright with the people that are impacted by the customer base and genuinely want to try to improve upon their day-to-day lives, everybody wins.

Lauren: Have you ever had customer expectations, like do you have a story of customer expectations that are just ridiculous to meet or that you would work really, really hard to meet where the bar might've been set higher than you expected?

Mike: Every single engagement. That's the name of the game. The nature of entrepreneurs is a masochist bunch, not for the faint of heart. We always try to strive to do more than is tenable today. I think one of those great lessons for us is today, in this stage of our organization of 50 people, not quite mature, but learning what things not to do, so try to be more realistic in how to bite off new opportunities and be strategic in the way you grow your footprint. When we got started, every opportunity that came to us was opportunistic, and we were building to it in a shotgun-type approach because we needed revenue. I didn't have revenue in the front door, I couldn't make payroll, I couldn't pay for the rent. There are many cases where we came close to not being able to do that. But now, today, having grown through some of that, it's being intentional in the way that we attack marketplaces that fit with our product fit.

Lauren: I want to talk about that revenue thing.

Mike: Yeah.

Lauren: You guys started by bootstrapping it, didn't take investor money at all, but I know that has led to some dicey situations with cash flow. How did you navigate those really tight moments?

Mike: When we got started, I managed every portion of the books down to the gnat. The cash flow game was really my daily activity, what bill could I pay today without missing payroll next week, which invoice could I collect on early to pay down the credit card bill? I remember there was a day that we had something like $250,000 in overdue accounts receivable but only $5 in the bank, and the-

Lauren: $250,000?

Mike: Big-ticket customers with big-ticket bills, but we weren't collecting on it-

Lauren: That's crazy.

Mike: ... so what do you do with $5 in the bank and far more than $5 in what you have to pay to keep the lights on?

Lauren: What'd you do about that?

Mike: You get creative. You figure out ways to loan money where necessary, dip into personal savings, or take out an extra mortgage on the house, figure out if there's a customer that'd be willing to prepay because you've got a good relationship with them. Those are the stuff that most people don't want to talk about. I think that's kind of unfortunate because there is no business owner out there that hasn't had these exact same things as part of their day-to-day life.

Lauren: Did you take all those steps you just listed, or are those hypothetical things? You took out a second mortgage on your house for your business?

Mike: At different times, you gotta do what's necessary.

Lauren: That's incredible. So, you really believed in what you were doing.

Mike: I mentioned just a second ago that not of the faint of heart, the concept of grit and entrepreneurs is real. I mean, if you don't believe in what you're doing every single day, there's no reason to be there. And those ridiculous financial ebbs and flows, those second mortgages to make payroll because you believe in the people that are with you every single day, it's all in the name of creation, and I don't think that I could do it any other way. I also know that if it weren't for the support of this community and other entrepreneurs in it, I never would've had the courage to do it. My single greatest gift has been coming here to this town, and knowing that no matter who I wanted information from to teach me, I could ask them for a cup of coffee, and they would share the life lesson. I look every day to try to pay that forward because they gave me the courage to do the things we did to get us where are right now.

Lauren: I love that. That's so true. I think that's something so unique about Tulsa is Tulsans really want to see each other succeed. They want to see each other grow and learn and lift each other up. That's something you're not going to find in other cities, I would think.

Mike: I can't comment because I moved here at 22. I would venture to guess that's the case. I've got friends that have tried to do similar things in different parts of the country with limited to no success. It's not for fault points. There are things here that are lacking that you could find in other places, but I think that the people more than make up for those things that are missing.

Lauren: Can you share some specific stories of mentors who really opened your eyes to something?

Mike: Oh, man. I'm going to put somebody on blast. I'm not sure he's going to be so keen on it, but that's okay. I don't remember how Chuck Shaw and I met originally. He's had a fascinating story of heartbreak and success in a bunch of different industries starting in the technology space during the dot-com era, then moving into a series of human relations and culture management, and now. That was an investment too. It was his willingness to sit down and hear my story over a cup of coffee or a beer and without any regard for his personal boundaries share with me those same sorts of experiences really change my perspective. When I look at somebody like him coupled with Ben Horowitz's anthology of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, it's like everybody in this position lives that stuff. They need an outlet, a place in a space to help you overcome that adversity.

Lauren: Do you continue to meet with mentors and tap in to the knowledge of more experienced people?

Mike: As much as I possibly can. I've said I'm fortunate to have access to folks. It wasn't because it was just given to me. I worked hard to build those networks, but I keep up with almost everybody that has touched me along my journey, all the way back to the folks that helped in my classroom when I worked at East Central High School. I got together with one of those mentors just a couple of weeks ago. I think that DoubleShot, and this is a pitch for them, is a really fascinating place to bring people together-

Lauren: And the new DoubleShot is so beautiful.

Mike: It's really cool. Really cool. As much as I'm going to praise them right now, maybe they'll give me a discount on my coffee because I spend way too much money there right now. But it's really been a portion of my daily routine. I have the hours of 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. blocked off on my calendar, and it's either going to be used to meet with a mentor of mine, have the opportunity to pay it forward to somebody else that's looking for the same sort of engagement and mentorship that I was given, which, by the way, I don't offer advice, just all the things that I did wrong, and try to use that time as sacred space to continue to grow and learn.

Lauren: That's so good. After you went through the seasons of tight cash flow, you did decide to start pitching investors and looking for some VC capital. I know when we were talking earlier, you said that you've pitched over hundreds of investors, you've had over 40 meetings. What advice would you give to people who are trying to get in front of investors and get some capital of their own. What did you learn in that process?

Mike: I'm going to answer this in two parts. First is not directly to your question. I highly recommend that any entrepreneur that can bootstrap should. It teaches you discipline in ways you wouldn't have otherwise. Those stories I told about cash flow management make us a much stronger organization today.

Lauren: That's good.

Mike: As a tale to that, before you go get equity investment, if you can bring in debt financing, you should also do that. I look at a couple of the great technology companies out there like Jira who has never taken a penny ever, and they're worth an astronomical amount of money at this point. I covet what they were able to create because they were super intentional about marketplace opportunity what they could bring to the table with the talent they had available and executing. However, there are places and spaces that requirement investment, and ours, in a high-growth industry that does not have a whole lot of specificity about what the future looks like, is one of those. I mean, we're in an area where healthcare is 18% of GDP today, $3.65 trillion, and it'll double in the next 10 years. That's a terrifying number, so we knew that there was market opportunity to try to-

Lauren: Just a little bit.

Mike: Yeah, get us away from that cliff to try to help impact the outcomes of the marketplace and grow our business at the same time.

Mike: In 2017, I did probably 150 flight legs, met with 50 or so different entities, hundreds of different people. We struggled initially with the concept of being a flyover state. How can you, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, be a technology company that's going to solve healthcare problems? At first, that really irked me because I had really claimed Tulsa as home. I believed in the people. I believed in the mission of the community, and I knew that we could create something that the coast would have interest in, but then after being frustrated, I realized it wasn't the fact that they were calling me flyover that I wasn't getting the money. It was my pitch wasn't good enough, something I took introspectively. I either needed to be crisper in explaining the message of why we were going to change the face of the healthcare industry or be cleaner in the way that we talked about our customers and the value that they were obtaining or the vision that was necessary to change the healthcare ecosystem as a whole.

Mike: At the end of the day, we did take in a round of funding in 2017, and it changed our business forever for the better. We can talk more about that later if you like. But I think my one word of learned experience was when you feel down for meeting with an investor either locally or elsewhere, ask them for as much feedback as possible because it doesn't matter where you come from, you're not winning because of your space and where you live geographically. It's because you haven't peaked their interest enough and take that to heart.

Lauren: What were some of those specific tips they gave you to make your pitch better? Can you give an example of maybe what you were saying and how you changed how you're saying it?

Mike: The crispness with which we were explaining what we do was a really difficult topic for us. I could get hypertechnical into all the discrepancies that exist in clinical messages that come out of a hospital system and their electronic health record. Nobody wants to hear that. They want to know about-

Lauren: Yeah, that all just went way over my head.

Mike: It goes a thousand steps deeper than that. What they want to know is what is impacting a patient today, how is that changing a doctor's ability to support that patient, and what is necessary to stop impending doom, a $7 trillion industry that'll bankrupt our nation.

Mike: Getting more tightly-tuned in the messaging and the heart strings of your audience regardless of what you're selling is most important. That's not just for investors. That, for me, is in our selling pitch. Every single target audience I talk to, we talk to them in the language they understand. You have to be a master interpreter to do this well.

Lauren: That's good. Then you took the VC money. How'd that change your business?

Mike: Oh, we were four people in a garage and 10 people in Class C run-down building space. Then we were 22 people in slightly larger building space with lots of empty floor plates. In fact, when we moved into our current spot, it was before we took investment, we had 22 people on 20,000 square feet because we just knew we were going to land all these customers, and it was going to change how our footprint was. As time tells, it didn't go quite like that.

Lauren: I love the optimism.

Mike: Yeah. It took us almost about a year until we raised that money. It was beginning in 2017. We moved in... I was actually the only person on the first floor for the full year. It was a very strange experience. Took the money, and we went from 22 people to 40 people almost overnight. We're encroaching on, I think we may have just eclipsed 50? It wasn't just in body count that the venture funds enabled us to encapsulate. It also allowed us to pay down that massive line of debt that was personally guaranteed that was weighing over our heads and let us think strategically about how to attack the market. I think the most important thing they brought to the table though was a desire to put a board around our operation. Then we could not be fortunate with the folks that are on our board, national experts, some internationally renowned, and they also helped us go out and find a professional CEO. Mark McCurry, I've got more respect for them than just about anybody. Four years industry experience, He moved he and his wife from North Carolina to come to this city, and he loves this city, not just because of the business, but because of what the city represents. It's really changed the way we look at market opportunity.

Lauren: I was actually going to ask about your CEO. How has it been bringing someone in who wasn't there since the beginning to have such a big leadership role? I'm sure there's a lot of good in it, but it's gotta be hard at moments too.

Mike: I think about this in the context of talent as a whole. When you start something, it's your baby. You want it to be in your own image. Anybody that has partners in the creation of something recognizes that they view their babies slightly differently. My partners and I, just like any good organization, have had heated arguments, some ending well, some ending poorly. That translates into how you grow the business over time. I think about the talent equation as not just right butts right seats, but also at the right time. I myself have changed functions five or six times over our five-year tenure, and that's okay because you need to be comfortable with the fact that as you grow, as market attack changes, different personas are necessary to achieve outcomes. Bringing Mark in was the culmination of many years of internal dialogue. We always knew that at some point, we would outstrip our Rolodexes, our ability to grow, localize corporate culture, to support the great organization good, and it did. It obviously came with some initial bumps in the road. You have to get anybody up to speed. No new employee hits the ground running. But his depth of knowledge and expertise of helping grow businesses has changed us, and I thank him for teaching me every day.

Lauren: You talked about culture. Is it his main role to shape your culture, or do you feel like your whole leadership team is shaping your culture, and how do you do that as you grow? You went from 10 people to 50. That's a big change. How do you... What is the Verinovum spirit and how do you maintain that?

Mike: I had an interesting conversation about this. I'm a member of Entrepreneurs' Organization, an amazing group, international entity that has a local presence here, entrepreneurs that try to share with one another about the things they struggle with and their successes. We talked about this just on Tuesday with my local cohort. Culture is an interesting thing. You've got two paths. You either let it happen, or you get to shape it in the way that you want it to be. I think shaping is either very intentional or by pathway of the right bodies you bring into the organization. We have 50 people today, roughly, but we have hired over our short tenure 84.

Lauren: Okay.

Mike: It's a lot of turnover. Most people don't want to talk about this either. That's very common. You think about culture, it's not necessarily that we hire the wrong people. In some cases, they left because of family issues, that they needed to move or they found a different job that was a better fit or they just didn't work out for us and we needed to get rid of them. I look at the head of an organization as someone that tries to embody the collective spirit of the staff and push them to be better tomorrow than they are today. We believe fully, as part of our vision and mission and culture, be better tomorrow than you are today. If you're continuing to do that with the same concepts of trust and respect and forward learning, then we're going to make it work.

Lauren: Do you have set values as an organization that are your guide posts to how you hire and how you make decisions?

Mike: I'm really fortunate, again, in this Entrepreneurs' Organization vein. I've stolen some of those or we've stolen some of them. Trust and respect's really big to me. I want my employees and my peers to be forthright with me just like I will with them, and the concept of being better tomorrow than you are today is a really important cornerstone. That, to me, embodies growth, understanding that I don't have all the answers, and that's okay. If I come to the table with a question, it's not because I'm dumb. It's because I genuinely don't understand and I want to understand. It could be that when I ask the question, I'm going to force somebody else to think differently than they did before. Those aha moments need to be celebrated in every opportunity, and I think that's an integral portion of how we as an organization have gone from five to 50. Do I believe that our core values will change much from 50 to 100 to 200 to a thousand? No. May they be represented differently? Absolutely, because the people that we bring to the table are going to have different past experiences, and that shapes the culture as you go.

Lauren: In a recent article that I read online, someone asked you, "What's biggest mistake you made so far?" Your answer to that question was working 80-100-hour work weeks. I think a lot of entrepreneurs would say, "Well, that just comes with the territory. If you're building a startup, it will be your whole life." Why do you call that a mistake?

Mike: I don't remember that article. I think this is where I get to shout-out the people in my life, the community, as I mention before, for providing great support, the mentors that have come my way, my co-founders that were in the trenches doing the same thing, our amazing staff that's afforded me the ability not to work a hundred hours a week anymore, and my wife, more than anything else, who has been with me by my side through the financial and emotional ebbs and flows through this. Sophia has really been my guiding light. The concept of working 80-100 hours a week itself is not a good answer. Being intentional about where you're spending the time is. If I were to go back and look at the first two years of how I spent that hundred hours, it was more shotgun than strategic, and I wasn't very good at prioritizing. In fact, some of my co-founders would ask me all the time, "What are you doing? That doesn't make any sense?" I had in the back of my brain that I had to know everything about all things all the time, and if I didn't, I wouldn't be effective. What I found is that when you're putting in that much stress and not giving yourselves an outlet, you're less effective during the work day. When you're trying to grow other people, help them understand whether it's a client or an employee, you need to be fully present, and you can't be fully present if you're only sleeping four hours a night.

Lauren: How do you create that margin now and give yourself boundaries to shut off work and be with your wife, or I know you're expecting two children soon, so how do you create boundaries for yourself? Still working on it, just as every entrepreneur would say that they strive for better every day. We talk about strategic planning in business all the time. There's very little strategic planning that people do for their own lives. What do you really want to accomplish in 10 years or three year or one year, and what do you need to do to hit those milestones for success? I'm not going to sit here and say that I do this very well, but I think that being intentional about knowing what your guardrails are is important. For instance, I've made it a 2019 goal to try to calendar more time for personal things outside of the workplace. I'm going to allocate six hours a month to Entrepreneurs' Organization. I'm going to allocate three nights a month to go be with my friends and two nights a month for date night. I know those that are a bit more fast and loose will say, "That just ruins all the spontaneity, it's on your calendar now." I think differently. If I am intentional about putting the space to go do those things that are important to me, then I can really truly be present there and excited about it, rather than belaboring all of the stuff I didn't do on my checklist for the day.

Lauren: That's good. I would love to go off on a little tangent for a-

Mike: Sure.

Lauren: ... second. You were a teacher. You mentioned this a little bit with Teach For America. You worked in Tulsa at East Central, and while you were there, you served as the director of entrepreneurial studies, and I love that. I love thinking about investing in the next generation of entrepreneurs. Can you talk about what did you teach those kids about business and why?

Mike: It's a funny story about how I got there. I went to the University of Minnesota, and despite my inner circle's best wishes, said, "I'm moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma to go teach." At that time, it was supposed to be sixth grade math. I showed up, and no sixth grade math slots existed. I circulated my resume. They found that I had gotten an entrepreneurship undergrad degree, and a wonderful principal, Suzette Huggins who no longer works the district, she's in D.C. now, said, "I'll take a chance." I've always wanted to create an entrepreneurship magnet program. I don't know what that looks like. "Mike, go figure it out." At 22, I had not a clue what I was doing. None whatsoever. I appreciate her for giving me that opportunity, and that goes back into the community support. The first year was some of the fundamental stuff, financial literacy, whatever I could find in a textbook, and the staff at East Central had a great technology program. In fact, most people don't know this, Tulsa Public Schools and their technology program is amazing, one of the best in the state. They present an opportunity to bring in resources both technical and entrepreneurial with state-based curriculum. But during that first year, the charge I was given by Suzette was to do more, so I spent my mornings and evenings canvassing business owners, universities, foundations to try to stitch together a more immersive experience. The whole goal was to have OSU and OU, TU, TCC, a part of the family, teaching kids about grit and creativity and how to be intentional about creation. Looking back on it, I wish we would've been more structured in our way of showing the growth of the students because those intangibles in entrepreneurship are hard to quantify. I'd like to think that at least a few of them got something out of it during that time because during that second year, pretty much every single kid in the school had to touch the entrepreneurship program in one way, shape, or form.

Lauren: Really?

Mike: It was really cool. I've kept in touch with a couple of my past students. Some of have actually applied to Teach For America, which is awesome. Others are business owners today, and I-

Lauren: Really? Your students that you taught entrepreneurship-

Mike: Yeah, which was super weird.

Lauren: ... now own businesses?

Mike: Yeah, I remember-

Lauren: That's so cool.

Mike: I remember, I think it was José came up to me when I was at a coffee shop one day, and he goes, "Hey, Mr. Noshay. I don't know if you remember me..." I was like, "Yeah, I remember you. Good to see you." "Yeah. I'm in partnership in these two businesses." I think one was a mechanic shop, one was a creative studio or something like that. He was 21 and in college at the time. That's amazing.

Lauren: Yeah. You instilled that in him.

Mike: I'm not so sure. He had that in his bones. I just like to think that we gave him a little push to give him some of the foundational skills to do it more effectively.

Lauren: What were you teaching students? Were you getting into real logistical business concepts with them, like can a 15-year-old understand equity and-

Mike: For sure.

Lauren: ... and how do you teach those things?

Mike: All of the advanced concepts in business are predicated on simpler things. Junior Achievement does a really amazing program all over the country, including in Tulsa, that brings business leaders into the classroom and teaches the students how to start a business with tangible funding. We had one of our classes build a business for procuring and reselling lemonade, and every member of the class was an equity holder. They had their shares. It was in a, I think a ESOP plan of sorts where you had payouts based on how much revenue the organization earned. You also had wages individually based on how much you sold and the role you held, whether you were treasurer or a salesperson or an operations person. Did it get all the way down into the weeds of an operating agreement? No, but it presented the fundamentals of what it means to be an owner, an operator, and something bigger than yourself, which is really the point all along. You can't start a business, for the most part, and be successful truly as a sole proprietor. You need to be willing to integrate and organize with other people, and the goal is to get a collective group of youngsters to work together towards a common goal.

Lauren: I really love that. I think that's so good. What do you think could be done to create and maintain programs like that in our schools today? Does that still exist now that you're gone, and how can other schools who want to emulate that do that?

Mike: It's an interesting challenge across the country. We know there are different pockets of focus, whether it's STEM or the arts. I think there is a bit of an insurgence of entrepreneurship as a goal. There's a difficulty, I believe, we run into in sub-setting, education by a specific outcomes. You're either going to be a scientist or a banker or a lawyer or a mechanic, when in reality, the concept of entrepreneurship to me is a baseline for all of those. You can be entrepreneurial, whether it's in starting something new by yourself or intrapreneurial, building something within the confines of something else, in all of those verticals. East Central's program has changed and morphed. When I left, we ran into some funding issues. Initially, another major shout-out to the philanthropic community here, the Schusterman Family Foundation was extremely supportive, the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, TU, TCC, they all brought resources to the table to try to make the first instantiation a real thing and make it successful. I would like to think that the term "entrepreneurship," although still really difficult to spell is something that-

Lauren: How many Rs? Yeah.

Mike: Yeah, right? Spell it wrong all the time. It's becoming a bit more approachable, and it doesn't need to be its own stigma. I would hope that it could be a series of values or philosophies tied to financial literacy and management and partnership that you could instill in every classroom, whether it's social studies, language arts, math, or otherwise. That was the goal we had. We tried to have every classroom have some interweaving, and being a naïve 23-year-old, I probably didn't do it as well as we could have. I hope that across the country, we'll make it an important part of curriculum in the future.

Lauren: Pivoting back to Verinovum a little bit, you're still really early on in this journey. As you look forward, what are the biggest hurdles on your horizon right now, and what's your plan to tackle this?

Mike: Maintaining identity while attacking new market problems. We went through some strategic shifting and who we were attacking and how we were going to attack them last fall, and it's turned out to be an amazing organizational shift, but in an industry like ours that is ever-evolving and there are competitors that pop up all the time, remaining relevant on the marketing scene while ensuring our product pipeline challenges the marketplace is a really important point for me. I don't believe in a direct sales channel, at least for our space. That's a widget. You need to make sure that you are challenging your customers and their assumptions about what they're doing today and what they should be doing tomorrow. There's a model for it called The Challenger Sale. I highly recommend everybody read it. It was gifted to me and changed the way I think about engagement. It's because of that ebb and flow I needed to challenge the marketplace that being ahead of the curve and continuing our R&D cycle, which we have meetings for all the time, is paramount. I know that it's allocating the resources both financial and human to get it done while maintaining the success of our current client base is really important, and also finding ways to merge what we're going to do next with our current. It's... I don't have a great answer because it's a bit of a gray area for any-

Lauren: Sure.

Mike: ... organization.

Lauren: No one knows the future, for sure.

Mike: Crystal ball would be fantastic, or Back to the Future if anybody has a DeLorean that I can-

Lauren: If we find one, we'll let you know.

Mike: ... use, I'd be all for it.

Lauren: Nice. What are the tangible steps you take to stay ahead of the curve? Is it magazines? Is it conferences? What do you do, what can entrepreneurs do to be one step ahead and not be so focused on the present?

Mike: I mentioned before I try to carve out time every day. A portion of that time is learning from people that do things differently than I do. There's a lot of different ways to look at entrepreneurship. It can be creation of something net new, a strike of genius that changes the world forever, and then there's something more basic, which is incremental innovation on something that existed already. I think the sweet spot's in between and taking the collision of ideas that weren't meant to be put together and putting them together. What we're doing in healthcare right now isn't revolutionary. Every other mature industry has struggled with it, so we're taking concepts from other places to try to improve upon a problem that hadn't been tackled yet. By placing ourselves in a pathway to learn from others in disparate industries, from reading up on local publications, attending major conferences both for our industry as well as just-for-thought readers in the technology space has given us an opportunity to make those disparate ideas collide and create something new from it.

Lauren: Do your potential customers take it well when you take this challenge or sales approach? Do they get excited by it, or do you feel like they are initially standoffish to it usually?

Mike: That's a mixed bag. Some people are very set in their ways, and that's understandable. I don't have the answer for all people. In fact, one of the first lines I use in discussions is, "I don't have a silver bullet for you. You're going to have issues come up that I can't solve." However, I can tell you from our experiences, these are the sorts of things that you are going to encounter, and if those problems resonate with you at all, then perhaps we can help try to fill the gaps for you.

Lauren: That's good. The last question we always end with is, for entrepreneurs who are in the middle of a failure right now, or a really hard time, maybe they also have $5 in the bank, how would you encourage them to stick with it and keep going?

Mike: My Bible, and I mean this, it got me through multiple years of some of the lowest lows, depressive weight swings, mood wings was The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I highly recommend that reading. Then finding other people in your world to read the same thing, whether they are entrepreneurs or not. Your brother, your mother, your significant other, your pastor, it doesn't matter, somebody that you can then have a dialogue about the struggles because most of the populace can't understand what that means, not that their struggles are any better or worse. They're just different. Having something tangible that they can then relate to and somebody else's expression of the trials and tribulations creates a connection and synergy that there wouldn't be otherwise.

Lauren: That's good. Mike, thank you so much for coming in to share your story. I'm so excited to see how Verinovum takes off in the years to come.

Mike: I just want to say, again, thank you for the opportunity. It's not something I thought I'd get the chance to do, and a huge thank you to everybody in this community who has given us the boon to get we are today.

Lauren: Next week, on The F Word.

Taylor: We were under-supplied, and Hop Jam number one, we ran out of beer in two hours.

Lauren: Taylor Hanson talks about building one of Tulsa's most popular music festivals, Hop Jam.

Announcer: The F Word is brought to you by 36 Degrees North, Tulsa's basecamp for entrepreneurs. To learn more about our workspace, community, and resources, visit 36n.co.